The head of a horse rescue group filed a federal lawsuit Monday that says the Suffolk Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals runs a "private police force" that is unaccountable to anyone, tramples on people's rights and must be disbanded.
Both the federal suit and one filed in state court last year against Suffolk SPCA by Mona Kanciper, head of New York Horse Rescue, stem from the SPCA's 2010 probe of Kanciper.
"They destroyed my life," Kanciper said at the rescue center, her 50-acre Manorville farm, as five Welsh corgis rolled in the grass and some of the 15 horses milled about. "They destroyed my reputation."
Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk SPCA, declined to comment on either lawsuit. He said the group's volunteer investigators are trained through the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Kanciper said her horse rescue operation has saved about 150 abused horses since 1999, but her private business teaching horseback riding nose-dived after the investigation became public. The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
SPCA officers went looking for evidence of horse abuse and found none, but charged her with abusing dogs. She was acquitted of those charges last year but was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, for euthanizing a dog in a young girl's presence. She is appealing.
The federal suit claims that the SPCA, a nonprofit group based in Smithtown and authorized by state law to investigate animal cruelty cases, improperly got search warrants to dig up Kanciper's farm and search her house, refused to let her call her attorney and held her captive during a March 2010 raid.
"A whole swarm of people came, thinking I'd killed all these horses," she said. "It was devastating."
The Suffolk district attorney's office, which prosecuted the case against Kanciper, declined to comment on the SPCA.
Kanciper's attorney, Alan Sash of Manhattan, said the SPCA should be closed. "Its law enforcement section has jumped the shark, as they say," he said. "It's off the reservation."
He said it was inappropriate for an advocacy group's volunteers to have peace officer status. It's like giving similar powers to the New York Civil Liberties Union to investigate human rights cases, he said.
Sash said it is also troubling that no one oversees the group except for a private board of directors. Gross has said in an affidavit that the county "has absolutely no control over the SPCA and its activities."
The suit says the group's law enforcement section illegally mimics real police, with badges, uniforms and titles designed to make people think the volunteers are police officers.
"They just come here, like police, and you're afraid," Kanciper said. "They appear to be very, very official."